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Life in the fast lane: Meet the Ulsterman who guides the careers of sprint king Usain Bolt and distance runner Mo Farah

 

Former Ulster University student Ricky Simms is now one of the top sports agents in the world, managing some of the greatest Olympic stars whom he numbers among his closest friends.

Former Ulster University student Ricky Simms is the eldest in a family of 10 and the chances are you may never have heard of him. The Monaco-based 43-year-old is, however, one of the most powerful men in sport and looks after the interests of a host of famous athletes, including sprint king Usain Bolt.

Simms, who recently received an honorary degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) from the university for his outstanding achievement as a leading sports agent, has known Bolt since he was a teenager.

Since then the Jamaican has become the fastest man ever, a multiple Olympic and World Champion, and one of the most instantly recognisable people on the planet.

While the charismatic runner has been burning up the track, Simms has shone in the background, providing endless business and sporting opportunities for his client.

The relationship is not just related to work. As Simms proudly states, the pair of them have become so close they are like brothers.

Bolt is aiming for more gold medals at the upcoming World Athletics Championships in London in his last event before retirement. Despite being such a key figure in Usain's remarkable success, the Ulsterman says he won't feel emotional when Bolt races for the final time.

After all, such is the incredible interest in the finest 100m and 200m sprinter in history that there will be much to do when the running stops.

Simms, a personable character who has an adorable two-year-old daughter Mia with German wife and former athlete Marion Steininger, also has Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion Mo Farah and Kenya's queen of the track Vivian Cheruiyot among others on his books in a role that sees him travel the globe.

It's a far cry from his days as a kid playing on the beaches of Donegal - he is from Milford - before informing his mum Margaret and dad Norman that he was on his way to Ulster University in Jordanstown to study for a degree in sport and leisure studies.

A keen athlete from he was 12 and an Irish under-23 middle distance runner, Ricky admits he "wasn't good enough to make it to the Olympics" and moved into coaching and assisting young athletes, such as Belfast's Dermot Donnelly, who went on to represent Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games.

He recalls: "I was kind of a part-time coach, agent, manager without knowing. It wasn't something I did for money. It actually cost me money, but I liked other people to do well.

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Ricky and Bolt at an athletics meeting

"Then I got to know Irish athlete Sonia O'Sullivan quite well. Her agent was Kim McDonald, who lived in London, and he was one of the top sports agents in the world. I went over to work for him at the start of 2000."

One year later Kim sadly passed away and Ricky, along with Marion and associate Duncan Gaskell, took over the company, naming it PACE Sports Management. Simms has earned many accolades, including being listed in Sports Business International's top 20 most influential sports agents in the world, though he acknowledges much of the recognition is down to the unique talent of Bolt.

"When Usain was 15 he won the World under-20 championships and everyone was talking about him in the athletics world," said Simms, reflecting on how they first met.

"He was this super talented Jamaican guy. Normally when kids from Jamaica leave high school they go to college in the United States, but he was a bit of a home boy and didn't really want to go to a cold place in the USA, so he decided to go professional and he was looking for a management company.

"We were introduced and we talked to his parents. It was myself and my wife, so it was a bit of a family thing and I guess they thought we would look after him.

"He took three or four years when he was kind of injured and had growing pains, then he started becoming really good, and now, all these years later, he and I are like brothers. We hang around together a lot of the time and do everything together. It is a business relationship, but it is a great friendship as well.

"We had dinner recently and he was telling a story when he came in at the start, we treated him the same then as we do now. We treat everyone like that. We are a family company and we really like helping people get to the next level.

"Usain has been on an amazing journey. The World Championships will be his last event. He will run the 100m and 4x100m relay.

"I'm pretty easygoing, so I don't get too emotional about these things. I would love it if he went out at the top. He has had a great career and I would like to see him win, and then we party."

The world is fascinated by what's next for Bolt. His agent provides the answers.

"He doesn't have the hunger to keep training. He is still young. He is 30 and could still do it for another four years and go to the 2020 Olympics, but he has achieved everything he needs to achieve," says Simms.

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Ricky Simms and Mo Farah

"There are a million other opportunities for him with what he is going to do and he is ready to move on to the next chapter.

"Over the past five years we have been setting him up, so although he endorses many companies, he also has ownership in some companies, so the business side of his life we will continue to manage. He has a shaving company, an insole company, he has a restaurant business and many things like that. Football, he has always talked about. If you ask him, he will want to play football and because he has said that, we have had a dozen clubs who would like him to go for a trial with them. I don't want to name names, but he will go to Dortmund because the CEO of Puma, who is a good friend of ours, is on the board at Borussia Dortmund. He will go to train with them.

"Can a sprinter who is 30 years old play in the Bundesliga or the Premier League? Realistically, that is a step way too far. I think if he had six months or nine months playing and training with a team, then he could play at some level, whether that is in the League of Ireland or the Irish League or League One or League Two.

"If he was here, he would hit me on the head right now for saying he is not going to play in the Champions League, but I don't know, realistically, if he has the motivation at this stage of his life if he wants to go training with the reserves on a rainy day in Manchester or Munich or somewhere. He is a wealthy guy and has a great life. I don't know if he has the hunger to do that. With football, though, in some form you will see him. We have a number of high-profile charity events that he will be part of.

"TV is really interested in him, he is very good in front of camera. Movies are very interested in him and he has a Foundation. He is a nice guy who wants to help, so he will do a lot more work for his Foundation and charity."

If Bolt is considered the golden boy of athletics and the saviour of the sport by some, another of Ricky's clients, Britain's long distance ace Mo Farah, has had to deal with suspicion over the last few years and press reports about whether he is a clean athlete. Farah has consistently stated he has not used performance enhancing drugs during his hugely successful career.

"Mo has had a tough time in the media, but if you look a little bit deeper, Mo made a gradual progression," says Simms.

"There were no big spikes or big jumps. I don't know why the media in the UK have given him such a hard time. The people who know Mo know he is such a fun guy. He is like thirtysomething going on 13. Usain is similar. They are both likeable characters.

"With Usain, you knew at 15 he was going to be something big. With Mo, it took him some time. He was very good as a junior, then he went through a couple of years when he sort of drifted and he could have got lost very easily, then we got him back on track. What he has achieved in the last few years has been great and hopefully he has another four or five years left at the marathon. Before that, he is favourite in the 5,000m and 10,000m in the World Championships.

"Mo is a resilient character. He has a steely determination and it wasn't easy for him growing up. People will tell him what has been said, but he has a remarkable ability to not be fazed by things. The public love him and I hope at some point the newspapers will come round as well."

Simms makes enough money to enjoy a wonderful lifestyle, though he is not in the same financial league as some football agents.

He says: "Football agents and track agents are very different. We are almost like the club. Football agents are about doing the deal. A lot of track agents don't have the commercial power. Usain does, but it is not like you are doing $1 million deals every day. You are trying to provide coaching and competitions for them and develop them. Most of them make their money from sportswear deals with Nike or Puma. They go to competitions and get prize money or appearance money."

Tellingly, he adds: "There are good football agents, but there are a lot of sharks in that world. We have had opportunities to get into football, but we are maybe too nice for that world."

Ricky only gets home to Donegal at Christmas. "My daughter loves it there," he says, remarking how privileged he felt to be handed an honorary degree by Ulster Univeristy.

"I was surprised when I got a letter telling me about it and I acknowledge that it's down to the success of people like Usain. It is a great honour for me and my family, who have always supported me. Usain has one and his coach has one, so he was joking it was about time I got one too!"

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